A reskinning of the walls of the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath could happen this decade. From left are William Lederer, the center’s director, and board members Thom Watson, and Gordon and Paula McKenney. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BATH — In order for the Chocolate Church Arts Center to be used year-round, the 1847 building would have to be reskinned, which would require its iconic 81-foot tower to be rebuilt, too, according to center officials.

The cost to rehabilitate the building’s exterior and rebuild the tower will not be determined until the center has obtained a cost estimate.

During a major improvement project in the late 1980s, the tower, which contains the church’s 1848 bell, was found to be partly rotted and leaning, and was then stabilized. But the leaning issue, exacerbated by the 2,000-pound bronze bell, is only being held in check by the bracing.

The tower would likely have to be rebuilt if the church is reskinned. The board has discussed its removal entirely; dismantling it could cost as much as $65,000, said Thom Watson, one of the center’s board members.

“We could take it down and continue operating, because it’s not tied really to the rest of the roof line,” he said. “But the board’s never been in favor of doing that. … It’s been a part of the skyline here for almost 200 years.”

The Gothic Revival structure’s brown-hued walls are tall and ornate, but they’re also hollow. The lack of insulation within the walls surrounding the Arts Center’s main stage forces events to be held in the adjoining annex during the winter. Due to the absence of air conditioning in the theater – and a building envelope that would retain that cool air – summertime activities take place on the waterfront.

Re-siding the walls is top among a list of tasks to tackle to maximize the Chocolate Church’s aesthetic assets and energy efficiency alike.

“We need a new exterior skin, so we can insulate better inside,” Watson said. “That would (also) allow us to do some interior rewiring.”

“(We would) take all the siding off; all the board and batten that’s on there now, insulate it and then put it back on,” added fellow board member Gordon McKenney. The building could finally be heated effectively, he said.

The church was built with 18 inches of “dead space” between its exterior and interior walls, Watson explained. “It’s hollow.”

Grant funding around 2014 permitted the center to switch from oil to natural gas, which in turn allowed the main stage to be comfortably used later in the year, Watson said.

“We were having audiences, you could see their breaths in early October,” he said.

The Chocolate Church pays about $1,000 for heat for the month December now, compared to that amount per show before the conversion, Watson said. The main seating area has approximately 200,000 cubic feet of air that needs to be circulated and heated, according to McKenney.

The center holds shows through Christmastime, then shuts the stage space down for January and February and moves operations to the adjacent annex, built in 1853 and renovated in recent years with new paint and insulation.

The Chocolate Church has been a quintessential part of Bath’s skyline since its 1847 construction. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

“We’d like to … get to the point that we could do shows year-round and have everybody be comfortable,” Lederer said, adding if that happens, he would still like to continue shows along the Kennebec River and in the intimacy of the annex.

The lower parts of the building have been repainted up to 39 feet, and the center has applied to the city’s Facade Improvement Grant Program for funds to repaint the tower.

Those are temporary measures in light of the ultimate need to reskin the building.

“Anything is temporary,” Watson said. “But it gives us a chance to actually see where the worst of it is, and treat what we can, recaulk what we can; our task is just to preserve it at this point.”

Maintaining the exterior paint, as much as possible with volunteers, is about “keeping this place looking nice within the community,” William Lederer, the center’s executive director, said. “It establishes the value of the place.”

Chipping paint in the theater, particularly on the ceiling, is another project the center could tackle if the building could be made weather-tight, McKenney said.

An estimate from 2004 for the restoration of the church meeting historic standards was $1.8 million, Watson said. The board has discussed a capital campaign for years, but won’t start one until it has a current project cost in place and some major up-front financial backing in order to attract other donations. Lederer would like the effort to be undertaken sometime before 2030.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: